We’ve all been inundated, overwhelmed and moved these past few weeks by the images of children suffering. Children in strange places, separated from their parents, without a home or a support system. Many of these children are younger than ten years old; like any of us would be, they are scared.
For the teams working at Children’s Health Fund programs, seeing children separated from their parents is, unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence. Staff at our national network of 26 programs working in 17 states and Washington, D.C., regularly see kids who have been put into foster care due to domestic violence or incarceration of their caregivers; we see children who have been sent to the US to live with extended family members, or with a parent that they have never known; and we see children who have crossed thousands of miles of hardship to get to a place where they can start again.
To us and our providers, all are equal. When children come to a Children’s Health Fund doctor’s office there are two things they are assured of: first, they will receive the highest quality of services available anywhere; and second, they will be taken care of regardless of their immigration status or ability to pay.
In our Miami Program, most children we serve are immigrants. Not only on our mobile medical clinic, but also through our nine school-based health centers. Miami has always been a gateway town, and we see firsthand the immigration patterns from Latin America and the Caribbean. Whether it is federal policy change, natural disasters, political unrest or extreme violence in their host countries, we usually see the exodus first – even before CNN. For example, in 2014 our program worked directly with detention centers to connect unaccompanied minors to care when the US faced the last immigration surge. From this experience we learned the vital importance of having on-site social workers, coupled with legal and mental health services for our patients. Many of children and families we see need help right away, and our medical professionals and mobile clinics are at the ready.
The Children’s Health Fund Phoenix program partners with an organization that provides free legal and social services to detained unaccompanied children facing immigration proceedings. Many of these young people do not have guardians, so traditional clinics have been turning them away. Because these young people fall under the purview of our program’s mission – to provide hope and holistic healthcare with respect and heart to homeless and at-risk youth – we are able to treat these youth as homeless minors who have the ability to consent to care and treatment on their own behalf. We’re able to deliver the care they need when they need it – a lifesaver to these often-traumatized kids.
In Mississippi, some of the families served by our program are migrant and seasonal health workers. We have on staff interpreters and a migrant health director who has connection with the both the employers and families that arrive to work in the fields. The needs of these families run deep, yet they are a critical part of the local, state and national economy. Medical-legal partnerships and care coordination to connect them with support services are vital to keeping their families intact and the economy moving.
And finally, there is the Children’s Health Fund supported Terra Firma program in New York. A flagship medical-legal partnership, Terra Firma is a living testament to the belief that all children deserve healthcare and justice. Terra Firma is literally on the front lines working to facilitate access to medical care and enhance the role of medicine and mental health in legal services. In the words of Co-Founder and Medical Director Dr. Alan Shapiro, Terra Firma “…aspires to empower immigrant children to develop resilience, attain stability, and reach their full potential.”
Sometimes in our mission of helping children, things come full circle. Our medical director in West Virginia, Dr. Isabel Pino, came to America 50 years ago – before there was a Children’s Health Fund – with her family to escape political persecution. “The quality of care and love I received when we first came to America is not like any other I have experienced,” said Dr. Pino, “…and I wish all children could receive the same support during their times of need.” Today, Dr. Pino lives that mission serving rural communities severely impacted by the opiate crisis where many children are separated from their parents due to addiction and incarceration.
Children and families in search of hope and a better life; this is the story of America, not just the story of today. After three decades of serving the most vulnerable children across this country, the need for our programs remains stronger than ever. Regardless of where they come from, or why they are at our doors, these children deserve our help. Thirty years ago, the Children’s Health Fund rolled our first mobile clinic through the streets of New York City and today, like in our name, children still come first.